A few weeks ago I drafted a blog post about the effects of Hurricane Sandy on students and teachers in Union Beach, but I never got around to finishing it. And then last Friday happened. Here are my thoughts on both…
Immediately following Hurricane Sandy, I volunteered for the New Jersey Education Association Back to School Effort. This relief program brought much needed school supplies to students and teachers throughout devastated Jersey Shore communities in Monmouth and Ocean Counties, particularly Union Beach. Along with about two-dozen other NJEA members, I helped stuff 1500 backpacks full of school essentials for students, and dozens of large plastic tubs of classroom supplies for teachers.
As I packed, I thought about what these kids would experience as they returned to school almost a month after the devastation. Filled with floodwater and sand, blown apart by high winds, their schools are no longer functional. Instead, makeshift classrooms were set up in a local church parish center and board of education offices. I thought about how these backpacks would help bring some stability to their lives, and what the ultimate goal for educators would be in the coming weeks and months.
Some kids are now homeless, having fled the storm with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They may be living with relatives or in shelters. They are worried, concerned, and afraid: Will we ever be able to go back to our old school? How will Santa find me if I’m living in a shelter? Union Beach is a blue-collar town. Those people didn’t have a lot to begin with. Now, they have even less.
And then last Friday, the actions of an emotionally disturbed young man in Newtown, Connecticut added 27 more names to the long list of innocent people killed through gun violence. Twenty of them were little children. And it happened in the most sacrosanct place we entrust to the care of our children: their school.
Every homicide is a mark on the collective soul of our society. Every mass murder is an amputation of our security. These children were young enough to be more connected to the world from which they came than the world in which they lived. The maiming or killing of children is simply taboo.
In the face of such catastrophic circumstances, the schools in Union Beach and Newtown will need a long time to fully recover. The educators in those devastated communities know that their job for the foreseeable future is making sure their students feel safe and secure again. It’s helping kids cope with what they just lived through and how their lives are forever changed. It’s giving them room to relax and permission to smile. It’s rebuilding their classroom communities. It’s mourning who and what they lost, and celebrating who and what is left. It’s treating these life-changing events in a way that will help their students heal. These kids cannot begin to learn until they’ve had a chance to grieve. They will learn, but it may not be within the context of their standardized tests.
How should a teacher be evaluated when a student is curled up in a ball under a desk having a flashback or a special needs student needs to be restrained? Think all that child needs is a ‘good teacher’ to get him under control? Think again. Oh, and it doesn't take a tragedy or disaster for something like this to occur. It can happen on any given day.
Last year I participated in a round table discussion with political and education leaders throughout New Jersey, including an education ‘reformer’ who lamented that if we could just capture and bottle the essence of great teachers, all our education problems would be solved. Well, unless that essence includes the force that drove seven educators to make the ultimate sacrifice for their students last Friday, that will never happen. Great teachers don’t come in a bottle, but they would do anything—yes anything—for their students.
When Value Added Measures allow for children who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because they watched their teacher shot to death, or barely escaped from floodwaters, I’ll sign on. When every school in America is free of violence, and filled with children of in tact, financially secure, English speaking, low poverty, fully engaged and functional families, I’ll admit I was wrong.
Teacher bashing must end—NOW! Great teachers are already in classrooms all across this country. Just ask the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School and Union Beach. And while you’re at it, ask the parents in either town if they give a damn about their children’s test scores this year.
Unless Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Michelle Rhee, Rupert Murdoch, The Walton Foundation, The Koch Brothers and their minions who have no idea what teachers do every day are willing to take a bullet for a student, they should spend their money elsewhere.